My mother was a pornographer. The best in the business, my father said. He’d been confined to a wheel chair since his fall from the high tower. Every morning, he made us breakfast and took us to the village school. My mother rose early and left the house before we were up. Once in late spring, roused by the swallows under the eaves, I watched her from the loft window, small in her broad black cape, leather case under her arm. In the long winter evenings, after the candles had burnt down, we could see the flickering rush light from under her studio door. Don’t disturb your mother, my father would caution with pride. My father had been the head tailor on the number three sail; his life’s work. Every last stitch tight and true, he told us. Now he stayed at home, cooking and cleaning, cajoling and comforting. Not that my mother was distant. Perhaps a little aloof. But that was her calling.
The village stood amongst the rice paddies. Stone and wood. Snug in the snow if sultry in summer. Every Thursday, the barge brought fresh supplies for the shops and took away the great hessian sacks of cereal. If someone in the town had remembered, there’d be a newsreel for the hall. Then the next Sunday evening, the caretaker would carefully top up the projector with shale oil and the whole village would gather round the screen. Sometimes there were fresh books for the library. There were rumours that there were books in the fort. Not the sort of books you wanted to read, my father said.
My mother worked in the fort. Every morning she cycled along the boardwalk, snaking amongst the water beds, that joined our village to the Promontory. Once a year, my school gave a concert in the fort. Once a year, one of us was chosen to become a Wave Singer. Wave Singers sang on the important days in the year. At the Equinoxes and Solstices. On Kropotkin’s birthday. Wave Singers sang at the spring tide, high on the dyke, while the great wooden flood gates were winched into place. The song of the Wave Singers, my father would say, is the most beautiful song that you ever can hear. Remember each one. Remember where you were when you heard it. One day someone may ask you. Poppycock, said my mother, plaiting paper clips into his long brown pigtails.
I’d been taken to every Singing since I’d been born. Six a year. Always on the same days. Of course I can’t remember them all. But he could. My father said that you knew when people were born and when people died by the Singings. You knew when to plant the rice and when to crop it. You measured the sail by the Singings. You’ll not be measuring sails again, said my mother, shuddering.
My father was an Arkist. Every morning, after he’d taken us to school, he sat with his friends folding rice leaves into Arkles, tiny green simulacra of the Ark. The Ark was enormous, big enough to hold the whole village and all the animals. From a distance, the Ark looked like all the other Arks; a huge, squat hull. Close up, it seemed improbable that the Ark could ever float. Even though the original wooden shell had long been layered in sheets of scrap metal, scavenged from the ruins beyond the fort, the yellow light from the Arkists’ tallow candles still seeped between the seams. My father said that if you folded one million Arkles and put them inside the Ark, that would be enough to keep you afloat when the Great Flood came. Fiddlesticks, said my mother, putting another peat into the pot-bellied stove. When the Great Flood comes we’ll all drown. You’ll see.
Many of the Arkists were former Wave Singers. Every year, at the concert in the fort, the oldest Wave Singer would select someone to replace them. The new Wave Singer went to live in the fort as the oldest Wave Singer’s apprentice. Once they had passed on all of their Songs, the oldest Wave Singer left the fort and returned to the village. The villagers were welcoming. Wave Singing was our highest calling. But the Wave Singers could only hear the Waves. Younger children were a bit frightened of the Wave Singers and tended to avoid them. They did seem a bit strange, said my father. When you talked to them, somehow they were never quite there. But they made perfect Arkles that were always the same size and shape. What an abject waste of time, said my mother scornfully. Arkles don’t grow on trees, my father would say. There aren’t any trees, said my mother, stirring the custard.
During the monsoon, my father complained of his arthritis, saying that his fingers were so stiff that he couldn’t manipulate the rice leaves. He would look hopefully at my mother and ask her if she could spare some paper to tear into soft strips. And what would I write on, said my mother.
When she wasn’t working, my mother liked to read, even though she spent most of her waking hours writing for others, lost in worlds of her own imaginings. Given half a chance she’d read all the books in the library, my father would say. My mother thought that words were just about all that mattered. She’d taught us all to read before we could walk and always brought us back books from her mid-Singings trips to the town. But when we asked if we could read what she wrote, she’d look cross. There are lots of books here, she said. Have you finished them all yet?
My father said that our house would fall down if you took all the books away. Every wall in every room was shelved from floor to ceiling. Every surface had books on it. Every Spring Singing, my mother reorganised all of the books. Under her direction, we’d take them off the shelves and make great piles in the yard. My mother then looked at each book in turn, telling us where to replace it, according to some scheme known only to herself. Rarely, she’d hand a book to my father to put into the recycling box. We all knew that, after we’d gone to bed, she’d have second thoughts and forgive the outcasts. You love your books more than you love us, my father would complain. Balderdash, said my mother, stroking his ginger sideburns. Anyway, they’re our books not my books.
Of course we hadn’t finished all the books in the house. But most of them weren’t the sort of books we wanted to read. We liked books about why things are the way they are; books about how things work and how to make things; books about plants and animals; books about other places and other peoples; books about the past and the future; books about the soil and the sea and the stars and the seasons. But my mother’s books were full of adjectives and adverbs. We didn’t care for modifiers. We liked practical books. Only children read stories.
I liked going to choir practise and especially enjoyed singing shanties, rounds and fugues. I wasn’t so fond of the Song. In choral singing, you sing with each other. There’s a small number of distinct, well defined, complementary parts that set each other off. As you sing your own part you can hear all the other people singing the same part around you. You can also hear all the other parts and the more you practise together, the more you can let go.
Singing a Song is altogether different. You stand in a Strand, making the shape of the Song. Its impossible just to Sing with your brain floating free. You have to become one with the Song, focusing carefully on the rest of Strand, especially on the Singers on either side of you. How they Sing intimately affects how you Sing and how you Sing affects them in turn. Its said that the two End Singers have the hardest parts, but its actually much easier only having to reflect one other voice.
As a child you start with simple Corner Songs – dodecahedrons, octagons, hexagons, pentagons, squares and finally triangles – gently acquiring the elementary Waves. Initially, all Corners sing the same Wave together, with no sense of Time or Place. Then each Corner takes it in turns to Sing against the others, moving their Waves ever so slightly in and out of Phase. Slowly you learn how to listen to and respond to your nearest Corners.
Next you move onto the Island Song, with it’s endless, circular Strand. You need to acquire a sense of the whole Song, of the Waves rippling round and round. You start to read the Song notation, learning how the Waves form more complex Breakers, depending on the Rocks and the Winds and the Tides. Finally you break the Island into a linear Strand and start to practise the village Song for the Neap Tide Singing in the fort.
When they’re young, everyone eventually learns their entire village Song. Its said that, before, Stretches used to be fixed in length, passing from mother to eldest son and father to eldest daughter. Now, each year, you’re given a random Stretch of Strand depending on how many are in the choir. My father said that so long as everyone can sing any Stretch then the Strands can never be lost. Some households Sing together but not ours. My father loves the Songs but has perfect pitch. My mother has an astonishing voice but only Sings rarely. She’d been chosen as a child but had refused. Such a shame, my father would say. Such an escape, said my mother.
Actually, steel recordings of all of the original Songs were held in the fort. Sometimes our choir teacher would borrow our village Song and the caretaker would bring the record player up from under the stage. The recordings had been made long before the seas receded and our peoples fled from the barren lands onto the fertile sea beds. We always listened in silence even though we all knew every last whisper of the long lost sound of our shores.
When we first began to Sing, we wanted to hear our Song over and over again, to learn it by rote, but the choir teacher said that the recording was just a frozen sequence in time and space. We shouldn’t listen to the recording as a Song in itself but as a ghost for our Singing to fit round. A Song wasn’t so much a single sequence of sounds as a family of sequences, all closely related but still all slightly different. A Song had unchanging elements: the camber of the strand; the texture of the sea bed; the positions of the rocks and inlets. These all defined the underlying shape of the Song. But the Song changed with the time of day and the time of year, with the wind and the tide and the rain.
My mother and father’s greatest pleasure was taking baths. It was understood that any of us could have showers whenever we liked but that baths were special. Once a month, my father would stoke the pot bellied stove. When the bathroom had filled up with all of our water, my mother would heave my father up the ladder and shut the hatch behind them. When they emerged several hours later, pink and sated, the rest of us would take it in turns to pump the grey soapy water through the filters and back into the huge tank under our house.
In the books my mother read, people liked to sing in the bath. My father said that singing was the last thing he wanted to do in his bath. There’s singing and singing, said my mother, darkly. It was said that the Wave Singers in the fort could have baths whenever they liked. It was said that the Wave Singers always ate well. It was said the Wave Singers could read the books my mother wrote.
For about a month before the last Spring Singing, the sky had been full of clouds. We were used to Spring clouds. They were wispy white, ethereal, translucent. They never rained. They just drifted slowly away. These clouds were different. They were dark and dense, casting deeper shadows than the monsoon clouds of late summer.
The morning of the last Spring Singing, we carried all the books outside, and laid them out in rows corresponding to the rooms and shelves that housed them. My mother walked briskly along each line, passing books back to my father who followed her with a box on his knees. When each box was full, one of us would carry it back indoors and carefully replace its contents according to my mother’s current taxonomy.
As my father handed me a box of those tedious tales my mother said were known as Airport Novels, I slipped and the books went flying. My mother sighed and bent down to retrieve them. One had landed spine up, pages akimbo. As she straightened the leaves, she turned angrily towards us. Who did this, she shouted. Look, the last ten pages are missing. She picked up another book and inspected it. This one’s the same, she cried. Come on. Who did this. She checked all of the books from the box. They all lacked the last ten pages.
My mother sat down amongst her mutilated books, held her head in her hands and rocked slowly backwards and forwards, keening sorrowfully. We tried to comfort her but she gently pushed us away. We turned anxiously to my father. My father looked broken.
There was a low, diffuse rumbling from all around, the sky suddenly darkened, and it began to rain. Quick, said my mother, pulling herself together, we must save them. She gathered up an armful of books and rushed into the house. My father told us to fill the boxes and pile them up on his lap. We took it in turns to push him back across the yard and deposit the books in the hall. Most had escaped with damp covers. Inside the house, my mother carefully wiped each one down and replaced it on its shelf.
Lunch was uncharacteristically sombre. My father had prepared a fine spread from the kitchen garden but nobody felt like eating. I noticed that, whenever my mother said anything to him, he didn’t meet her eye. After lunch, my mother returned to the shelves and inspected each book, frequently muttering to herself. Here’s another. And another.
The rain fell steadily and the water level in the paddy fields slowly rose. By mid afternoon it was lapping over the boardwalk to the fort. My father, fearful of the Great Flood, said that we should board the Ark. Don’t be absurd, said my mother, fiercely. We’re going to the Singing, just as we always do. We put on our best clothes, unfurled our umbrellas and walked to the fort. My mother strode ahead, wrapped in her cape, hugging her leather bag. My father wheeled himself along behind, anxiously checking the sky.
The fort stood on the Promontory jutting out into the Channel. The closely packed rectangular stone buildings were enclosed by high, angled ramparts. At the eastern end, a rusty barbed wire fence stopped anyone from venturing into the poisoned waste beyond. The boardwalk ended at the foot of the broad steps that led up to the top of the northern ramparts and into the fort.
The dyke ran across the Channel from the tip of the western-most rampart to the Point on the opposite shore. The rain fell in torrents, harder and harder. My father urged us to abandon the Singing and get into the Ark. We’ll do no such thing, said my mother. We carried him up the steps, and walked out onto the ramparts and along the dyke.
At the West Gate, we joined our neighbours. On the far side of the East Gate, we could see our friends from the next village. On the platform above the Gates, the Wave Singers had formed the opposing convex Strands of the Promontory and the Point. At the first signal from the Gatekeepers, we took up our stations at the windlass; the youngest nearest the centre and the eldest at the ends of the levers. My mother carefully put her leather bag down where she could keep an eye on it.
Once my mother forgot her leather bag and my father asked me to take it to her. Halfway along the boardwalk, I stopped and opened it, and furtively browsed the book she was currently writing. It was really quite shocking; full of people who wouldn’t work, who seemed to spend their lives talking to each other and consuming enormous quantities of food. It wasn’t clear where the food came from or who grew and prepared it. Certainly, the people in the story didn’t. They never seemed to finish their meals but it wasn’t clear what happened to all the leftovers. Given how hard and yet how pleasant our lives are, I blushed to think that anyone could enjoy reading about such idleness and waste. Shamefaced, I put the book back in the bag and delivered it to my mother.
At the second signal from the Gatekeepers, the Wave Singers began to Sing. Although we could barely hear them above the noise of the rain, we walked slowly round and round, winding the coarse hempen ropes onto the capstan, hauling the West Gate into the Channel to meet its sibling.
As the Wave Singers approached the Song’s crescendo, a huge wall of water raced down the Channel and smashed the Gates aside. We all rushed to the edge of the dyke. Our fields had long disappeared and the water rose steadily over the houses. My poor books, said my mother sadly. Well, at least we’re all still alive.
At first the Ark rose with the water. My father, peevish, told us that we should have gone there while we still had time. But as the Ark strained against its moorings, it began to break up, and hundreds and thousands of Arkles floated across the flood plain. My mother peered at them. White Arkles, she said. My pages.
She wept quietly. My father reached up and hugged her.
Copyright Greg Michaelson 2005.